If you’re in the mood for snippets of Jon Stewart, bootleg episodes of South Park, or home movies of sleepy kittens and skateboarding dogs, YouTube has what you’re looking for and plenty of it. But video art—ambitious works by acclaimed contemporary artists such as Matthew Barney or Ann Hamilton—is remarkably hard to come by online. The new video-streaming services offer artists a potential audience of millions, but few have opted to post their own pieces, and some have actively lobbied to keep their videos off the Web. Museums and galleries have been equally wary of online exhibition: Though the Museum of Modern Art recently launched a YouTube channel where it posts brief teasers for upcoming exhibitions, the museum says it has no plans to present its stellar collection of contemporary video art on the Web.
Where artists and institutions have demurred, enthusiastic art lovers have taken things into their own hands. What video art you can find on YouTube consists of clips that museum-goers have captured on cell phones or digital cameras and uploaded to the Web—without the artist’s permission. MoMA, which allows visitors to photograph freely in its galleries, is particularly prone to this kind of piracy: Here’s an excerpt from MoMA’s installation of Pipolotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All, in which the artist strolls down a city street, joyously smashing car windshields with a gigantic flower; here’s a brief clip from a hand-drawn, animated film by the great South African artist William Kentridge. Unfortunately, these DIY clips offer only faint reflections of what the artists had in mind when they created these large-scale works. Watching them is like looking at a snapshot of the Sistine Chapel ceiling: It may work as an aide-mémoire, but unless you’ve seen the work firsthand, you don’t know what you’re missing. These discrepancies of scale help explain why many video artists refuse to post their own work on the Web. Even when viewed on an oversized monitor, Web video can’t approximate the engulfing grandeur of a floor-to-ceiling video installation flickering on the walls of a darkened gallery. Though we tend to think of video art as an offshoot of film and photography, in practice it’s a lot closer to sculpture and installation art. Most video artists give precise specifications regarding the number, size, and make of the monitors or projectors, their placement in the space, the sound levels, the amount of ambient light—all of which would be lost in the translation to a small-format, single-channel medium like YouTube. For example, Nam June Paik’s The More the Better (1998) is a three-channel work (meaning it involves three different streams of video images) composed of 1,003 monitors stacked in a 56-foot-high tower. You can see a picture of it here, but it would be impossible to the view the work on the Web in any meaningful way.
Then, of course, there are the financial considerations. Like prints, photographs, and other easily reproducible media, video art is generally sold in small, limited editions (an artist will promise to produce no more than, say, three or five copies of a given work). In this way, artists and their dealers try to ensure that supply will never exceed demand; this artificial scarcity means that the collectors who buy the work can reasonably expect it to hold its value. (Works by established video artists like Bill Viola sell in the high six figures; video works by younger artists can fetch tens of thousands.) While compressed video files posted on the Web may not have the quality of the original editioned work of art, the proliferation of unauthorized copies can dilute the work’s value—and hence diminish the artist’s livelihood.
Finally, there’s the question of cultural context. So much of what we see in a work of contemporary art depends on how and where we see it. A stack of newspapers on the floor of a Chelsea gallery (like this work by Robert Gober) has a very different set of meanings from a pile of recycling in your hallway at home. For this reason, artists are understandably reluctant to display their work within the honky-tonk, lowest-common-denominator context of YouTube. Love it or hate it, most video art is slow, ponderous, even excessively long. (Consider, for example, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, which slows the Hitchcock film to a glacial pace, or Stan Douglas’Rashomon- style, avant-garde Western, Klatsassin, which runs continuously for 69 hours.) The marathon-length attention span these works demand may be possible in the quiet enclave of a darkened gallery, but on your office computer? Staring at a laptop in Starbucks? Forget it. Bring on the skateboarding dogs!
This is not to say that you can’t find any video art on the Web—you just have to know where to look. There are a number of Web sites that aggregate video and experimental film, most of it either archival or by lesser-known artists. Among of the best of these is UbuWeb, a not-for-profit Web site that bills itself as “the YouTube of the avant-garde.” There are more than 300 films and videos available for viewing, ranging from Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 classic, Anemic Cinema, to Joseph Beuys’ perky pop-music protest video, Sonne Statt Reagan (1982). Because so much of the work here is documentary or archival—and was conceived before large-scale gallery installations became the norm—most of what you’ll find is well-suited for Web viewing.
Videoart.net is a New York-based Web site that currently hosts about 400 videos by artists and filmmakers, most of whom are “emerging” (polite artspeak for “young and relatively unknown”). You can also find scads of new talent on the London-based Saatchi Gallery’s Web site, Your Gallery. Anyone is welcome to post here, and hundreds do, enticed by the high-profile imprimatur of advertising mogul and megacollector Charles Saatchi, who provides the bandwidth and prestigious Web address for free. These artists want to get noticed—by curators, by collectors, maybe even by Saatchi himself. The irony is that once they achieve the recognition they’re hoping for—inclusion in a museum show or biennial, representation by a top-notch gallery, inquiries from collectors—chances are they’ll pull their videos off the Web (or try to, anyway) and issue them in limited editions to be screened occasionally in whitewashed galleries or in the homes of private collectors.
So, is video art destined to remain a museum- and gallery-based medium with only a minor and reluctant presence on the Web? Yes and no. While successful video artists have plenty of good reasons, financial and otherwise, for wanting to keep their work off the Web, there are others who are creating art that can only be viewed online—work that actively incorporates interactive elements specific to online digital technology: hot links, avatars, gaming, virtual realities. Rhizome.org, which hosts an archive of more than 2,000 “new media” projects, is the best place to discover work in these hybrid forms that represent the most promising new directions for art on the Web.